in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #221: Reach Your Peak


Where does greatness come from? Why was Ted Williams the greatest hitter in the history of baseball? What made Mozart one of history’s most talented composers? Why was Shakespeare such a brilliant writer?

The typical answer most people give is that greatness is innate — you’re either born with certain gifts and talents or you’re not.

But recent research suggests otherwise. Greatness is in fact made through years of hard, deliberate practice. 

My guest today has been at the forefront of this research on the science of expertise. His name is Anders Ericsson and he’s a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He, along with co-author Robert Pool, have recently published a book highlighting Ericsson’s research into the true nature and malleability of talent. It’s called Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. Today on the show, Anders and I discuss the common misconceptions people have about talent, why the way most people practice leads to mediocre results, and how you can start implementing deliberate practice in your life to master any domain you choose. 

Show Highlights

  • How Anders started researching the science of expertise
  • How he was able to train a student to memorize a 100-digit number
  • Why there may be no limit to our ability to improve
  • The common misconceptions that people have about expertise and talent
  • Why perfect pitch isn’t an innate talent and why you’re not born “tone deaf”
  • Why practice made Mozart a musical prodigy
  • Why the way you’re practicing is making you mediocre, and maybe even worse
  • The principles of purposeful practice
  • The limits of purposeful practice
  • The principles of deliberate practice
  • Why deliberate practice is hard
  • Is deliberate practice domain-specific?
  • The importance of mental representations in deliberate practice
  • How you can apply deliberate practice when you don’t have a coach or teacher
  • How to apply deliberate practice to amorphous skills like business management and writing
  • What the “10,000 hours rule” gets wrong about deliberate practice
  • And much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Peak science of expertise book cover, by Anders Ericsson.

If you’re looking to get better in a certain area of your life, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is a must read. It’s filled with research-backed principles that you can start implementing today to become an expert. 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Where does greatness come from? Why was Ted Williams the greatest hitter in the history of baseball? What made Mozart one of the history’s most talented composers and why was Shakespeare such a brilliant writer?

The typical answer most people give is that greatness is innate. You’re either born with certain gifts and talents or you’re not. But, recent research suggest otherwise. Greatness is in fact made through years of hard deliberate practice.

My guest today has been on the forefront to this research on the science of expertise. His name is Anders Ericsson, he’s a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He along with coauthor Robert Pool have recently published a book highlighting Ericsson’s research in the true nature and malleability of talent. It’s called Peak: Secrets in the New Science of Expertise. Today on the show Anders and I discuss the common misconceptions people have about talent. Why the way most people practice leads to mediocre results and how you can implementing deliberate practice in your life to master any domain you choose. Great podcast with a lot of actionable points.

After listening to the show make sure to check out the show notes at aom/is/peak for links to resources to delve deeper into this topic. Without further ado Anders Ericsson and Peak.

Okay, Professor Anders Ericsson, welcome to the show.

Anders Ericsson: It’s my pleasure too and I’m really looking forward to it.

Brett McKay: Well, I’ve long been a fan of your work. You’ve done a lot of research about expertise, talent, deliberate practice, but the thing is I read about your work from other people writing about your work. There’s lots of books about the research you’ve done. But you have a new book out where you along with your co-author Robert Pool talk about the research you’ve dedicated your career to and the science of expertise. The book’s called Peak.

Before we get into the details of it, I’m curious, at what point of your career did you start focusing on, what makes experts, experts? Why did you decide to focus on that in your psychological academic career?

Anders Ericsson: Well, I think we can go back quite a bit of time, even to high school where I was really interested in how people were thinking and I was interested in how scientists were able to come up with their discoveries. I think I’ve had that interest in understanding how some people seem to be able to think in a way that allows them to be more successful and productive.

Actually, when I started, I started to become an engineer in nuclear physics and then I got more interested in the thinking part so I moved over to study psychology. My first work was essentially just having people think out loud while they were solving relatively simple problems. What really fascinated me was how different, different people think and how many, also, similarities there are in how people have to think in order to successfully solve problems. That was the starting point of just studying thinking.

Then I got an opportunity to go to United States for a post-doc and there I basically then started the work that we describe in the book. Taking a regular college student and seeing, what is it that happens if somebody gets a lot of training on a particular task, in this case your short terms memory. How much can you actually be able to repeat back exactly and what is it that happens to the thinking while you’re actually improving your performance.

Brett McKay: That research is interesting because it’s about working memory and there’s a long thought, there’s a limit to it, right? You only can maintain 7 bits of information in your working memory, that’s why phone numbers are probably 7 digits long. But, through your experiments you were able to help this one guy memories digits, number strands that were 100s of digits long.

Anders Ericsson: The first subject was able to do little bit over 80 digits when you read them one per second. I guess, we had another. His friend, we trained him, and he was able to get up to a 110 digits. But, I think the key finding was that if you’re trying to find ways, here of expanding how much you can hold on to, and we found that people actually were storing it in long term memory by making associations to things that they already knew. Our 2 subjects were using running times as a primary way of actually making sense of 3 and 4 digit numbers.

But, I think the key here is that if you commit to applying and building skill in a given domain, and we found the same kind of finding here in chess and other types of domains that, the experts were actually able not to have a more expanded working memory so they could keep track of what was happening and they could actually think and reason about what they might want to do in a way that was very dependent now on the particular domain.

I think that’s maybe one of the most interesting findings here, is that when you focus your training on a particular domain, it seems that there is really no clear limit on how much information you can be able to sort of consider as you have engaged in training for an extended period of time.

Brett McKay: Okay, we’ll get, later, more into details about this domain specificity of practicing and getting better. Before we get into why we’re able to do this, why we are able to … We have limitless possibilities of getting better in a task. I think it will be useful to talk about the common misconceptions that people have about expertise and talent. What are the common misconceptions that people do have about their ability to become better or develop their talent?

Anders Ericsson: One, I think basically the most important misconception is that you really have to have innate talent to even bother to try to become, or try to become an expert performer. I think we’ve now reviewed a lot of research that shows that basically that idea here that you show thing before you actually started engaging in training is not well supported.

We argue that it’s probably more important for you to assume here that there aren’t any innate gifts that you need to discover by sampling all sorts of activities. It’s more important that you find a domain here where you would have support and help and be interested and it’s really up to you to build that performance that eventually then will allow you to reach very high levels.

Brett McKay: You highlight examples of skills that were once thought to be just innate, natural talent. For example, perfect pitch was thought to be something that you’re just born with but you and your fellow researchers have found that, “No, you can actually through practice develop perfect pitch.”

Anders Ericsson: Perfect pitch is kind of a weird ability that people found that some musicians had. If you basically play a tone on the piano, they can actually tell you exactly what tone that is. Maybe, even more impressively if you make a sound they can actually tell you what frequency that sound actually corresponded to in terms of notes.

One of the things that was sort of initially supporting that view was that, this is something that you either have and you don’t and it’s sort of innate was that basically when older adults tried to acquire this they found it extremely difficult and basically not something that would be easily acquired.

Another research started to look at, basically, the development. One of the things that people noticed was that the musicians that acquired this tended to actually … Had started playing music at an early age.

Now, I think it’s pretty compelling evidence that there’s an age period between 3 years and 5 years where it seems like any child, if you give them the appropriate training, will be able to acquire this skill. As you get older, it’s almost like the brain is now getting into a different developmental phase where it’s actually processing sound in terms of relationships. We talk about relative pitch where you can judge two pitches and argue whether they’re the same and how they’re different, which is a quite different process from just getting a single note.

Brett McKay: That is to say though, even as adults, it is possible with the right kind of training to move beyond this relative pitch, but actually acquire a perfect pitch.

Anders Ericsson: There are demonstrations of people who’ve been able to do that with very extended training. They never really reach the most extreme level of perfect pitch, but they certainly were able to do it.

What was interesting is that when they did it, they actually had to kind of memorize a note or basically they needed some kind of fixed reference point. Basically, that was the focus of the training of being to self-generate a standard that would allow you now to compare the note that you heard with your internal standard.

Brett McKay: Going back to this idea that children between the ages of 3 and 5, their brains are open to shaping through practice. You talk about, in the book how this is probably why Beethoven was such a musical prodigy. A lot of times we think that, “Oh, he just had this genius that he was born with”, but you show throughout the book that, “No, in fact, Beethoven, at a very young age, began extensive musical training under the hand of his father that allowed him to become the Beethoven that we know today.”

Anders Ericsson: I think we were talking about Mozart, but you probably …

Brett McKay: Oh yeah, correct. Mozart.

Anders Ericsson: You can probably make a related argument about Beethoven, but Mozart was famous for actually being one of the first documented cases here of this perfect pitch where he was able to name notes when they presented in isolation. Obviously, Mozart is viewed as a pretty remarkable musician.

In the book, we kind of really talk a little bit about when you compare what Mozart was able to do in terms of playing music, it turns out that today’s Suzuki trained music students that they actually, in some ways, were even able to reach more prodigious level than Mozart. It’s not that Mozart was doing something that nobody else could replicate.

We also talked about the fact that Mozart’s father may actually have been able to help Mozart with the early composition. When we’re really talking about Mozart’s ability to write compositions by himself, we’re talking about something that was done when he was in late adolescence.

Brett McKay: This is amazing. What your research is showing is that talent isn’t innate. We can actually, if we want to, through our willpower, our choice and our commitment, we can improve ourselves in specific skills through a certain kind of practice which we’ll talk about later on.

If practice is the key to becoming an expert, a lot of people practice. Say, if they’re a tennis player and they go to the courts every weekend, they play tennis. They think that’s practice, but you argue in the book, they are not really practicing effectively. How is it that most people practice that leads them to this middling performance that they never actually get to expert level?

Anders Ericsson: Yeah. I think most people know people who’ve been playing golf two or three times a week for 20, 30 years, they don’t seem to be getting any better. Probably the most important point that we make in this book is once you look at what people do, I think it’s somewhat similar with people who are engaged in the same profession for decades, they tend to just keep doing what they have been doing and they’re just doing more of it.

I think what we show here in review after review, just basically the length of time that you’ve been spending in a domain, if we exclude the first year or two when you actually do improve, when you’re getting into the domain, it doesn’t seem like additional experience is really improving your ability to be effective here as a doctor in terms of how well your patients are doing or if you’re a teacher, how well you can get your students to improve their academic performance, you can toe the line.

Even when it comes to just playing chess, if you’re a tournament player, the amount of time that you’ve been spending playing chess with your club friends does not seem to improve your performance in chess. Basically, just getting more experience is not automatically making you better.

Brett McKay: Got you. Going back to that research on the doctors, you even found studies, research that doctors’ performance actually declines with age.

Anders Ericsson: If we’re talking about something like diagnosing heart sounds, it actually turns out that the ability of a doctor to diagnose tape recordings here where we actually know what the patient’s problem was, actually decreases as a function of how long they’ve been out practicing since they graduated.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that was really interesting. Okay, if you want to get better at golf or tennis or whatever skill you want to get better at, it’s not enough just to go play a lot. You argue that you need to take your practice to something you call purposeful practice. What’s involved with purposeful practice?

Anders Ericsson: Well, we kind of argue that the ideal type of practice is, if you have a teacher who observes you performing, say, watching you play tennis in a doubles game or whatever. Then they will actually notice here that when you get an opportunity to do a backhand volley or something that you basically are very unlikely to be successful.Now, if you just keep on playing, the opportunities here for backhand volley is going to come when you’re not really ready for it, so you’re really not getting a very good chance here of developing better skills at improving that.

What we’re arguing is, well, if a teacher observed you and they all says, “Okay, so let’s now train your backhand volley.” Now, the coach can basically have you stand there ready to take a backhand volley and you keep doing that until you’re really having control over your shot and then basically make you step back, make it harder for you. Incrementally, you’re building up your skill of actually being able to do the backhand volley.

The argument is that even if you have just a couple of hours training with a coach under those conditions, that’s going to improve your backhand volley so much more than spending years or even decades of doubles tennis.

Brett McKay: It’s a matter of just honing in on a very specific skill and then purposely working on that skill?

Anders Ericsson: Right and integrating it into what you would normally do because you don’t want to make that change in a way that you’re not relying on it when you’re actually playing, but that general principle here … That’s true for musicians. You have a musician who’s preparing a piece for a public performance and there’s one section here where they have real difficulty really controlling and keeping up the tempo and the variations here and loudness that is desired.

Well, then you basically try to make that the target of practice. The teacher would recommend here, “Maybe you would need to do some exercises to be able to speed up now, basically certain types of finger combinations.” Then you keep working on it. Eventually, you embed that now in your performance. Now, you can actually perform it at a higher level than you could previously.

Brett McKay: What’s going on in our brain when we practice purposefully?

Anders Ericsson: Well, the argument is that a skilled performer … This is really key to be able to practice by yourself, you’re going to be able to have an idea of what it is that you’re aspiring to do. Then you know the kind of sequence of finger movements that you’re going to be producing. Then you also need to be able to listen to what it sounds like because you basically need to have some way of knowing if you’re getting closer to what you’re trying to achieve.

By iterating like that maybe for hours, you can basically now figure out ways in which you will be able to achieve that goal. Now, you can produce something that sounds like what the teacher wanted you to be able to produce and you can hear that you’re actually able to do that.

Brett McKay: Even though purposeful practice is a step-up from this random practice that you might do, you go to the tennis court, you go to the golf course, you say in the book though that purposeful practice still has limits. What are the limits of purposeful practice?

Anders Ericsson: Well, purposeful practice, the way we define it is that you have a goal and you’re actually trying to change a specific aspect. Now, you don’t necessarily know if that goal is the best.

Just to take one example here, let’s assume that you’re playing basketball and you want to learn how to dunk. One way to improve now your ability to get higher up in the air would be to keep jumping up and down.

Now, it turns out that there’s now research showing that the most effective way of actually improving the height of your jump is not jumping more, but is essentially working with weights, so you’re actually are lifting weights. That, now, gives the stimulus to your legs so you’re actually, explosively getting up with the weight. That now puts much more pressure on your legs. That type of training will eventually allow you now to actually get more success here in increasing your jumping height.

When we talk about deliberate practice, we argue that when the practice is actually recommended and the coach is actually diagnosing and saying, “Well, at your current level of performance, one thing that you can actually do to improve here within the next couple of weeks is by basically improving this. Let’s focus in on trying to improve this. Here is some training activities that would allow you now to repeat and get immediate feedback here on your success.”

Once we have a teacher who actually has proven by bringing other people up to the level that you’re aspiring to be at, then we’re talking about deliberate practice because not only are you doing purposeful practice, but you’re actually doing the kinds of sequence of purposeful practice that prior experience have shown is associated with you being able to reach a higher level of performance.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s another key pointer. Deliberate practice requires that the results are … You can replicate the results.

Anders Ericsson: Right. Basically, that the knowledge and training … I guess in music we have several hundred years of basically people trying to acquire very high level of skill on various instruments. They’ve now developed training activities that are effective here of improving various things like for example the speed of combinations, the ability to move your hand in jumps and stuff like that.

As long as there is basically this science support that a given activity will actually improve something better, then we’re actually calling that deliberate practice because a coach is more or less able to because that coach have actually seen other people reaching this higher levels of performance.

In some ways, I mean, that’s the magic of skill. You’re at a given level and the question is, can you get to this higher level? Well, if you see 10 other people who were at your level who actually now, with the help of this coach, have been able to reach this higher level, then I think most people would be convinced here, “It seems likely here that this type of training will actually get me to this higher point.”

Brett McKay: Got you. Deliberate practice requires you to focus on tasks or practices that we know, based on research, will get you better. What are the other principles of deliberate practice?

Anders Ericsson: Well, basically, I guess, for the purposeful practice, you need to have a goal and you need to have a training activity that allows you now to keep repeating and refining what you’re doing so you gradually will now be able to reach that goal. You also need to have the opportunities here to reflect on what happened when you tried to do something slightly different, to assess here whether that really could be a path for you to reach this higher level of performance.

This idea here that you really need to do something, you get immediate feedback about whether this is actually now closer to the goal. Basically, you keep refining.

We find that so much of education and training doesn’t really meet that criteria for purposeful practice. I guess if you go and listen to a lecture or the coach is telling you about how to do things, that’s very different from that individualized practice where you can actually do things and gradually improve your ability to do it.

We’re basically arguing here that most of the training that you see, even that’s going between teams, contain a relatively small proportion of what we would call purposeful. In particular, if you have only one coach to 40 soccer player or football players, then obviously, very little is going to be individualized training.

The coach is going to be having everyone doing the same thing. That may be useful perhaps to a few of the individuals, but you really are not finding that optimal training difficulty that really would be effective for each individual.

Brett McKay: One thing I’ve read about deliberate practice, in the articles and books that I’ve read about is that it’s hard, deliberate practice is hard, it can be boring and monotonous. Why is that, why does deliberate practice have to be hard in order for it to work?

Anders Ericsson: Well, one of the pre-conditions of deliberate practice is that the task that you’re setting yourself out to achieve is not something that you can already do. Basically, it’s almost like “setting yourself up for failure” because there is a gap here between what you’re trying to do and what you currently can do in a consistent way.

Brett McKay: Got you.

Anders Ericsson: Anytime, when you’re actually trying to stretch yourself, it’s going to require a lot of concentration. Also, it seems that unless you’re really trying to reach for this higher level goal, basically, just repeating doing things is not going to make a difference. That’s why deliberate practice, almost by design, is going to be difficult and the number of times that you’re not meeting the standard is going to be very high.

Obviously, once you get, so you can now actually reach this goal, then you’re going to get that satisfaction of feeling now that you can actually do things that you couldn’t do maybe a week earlier. That is enjoyable, but there’s a long path before you get there.

What we find is that most of the musicians and other performers, they tend to have pretty stable practice schedules so they actually decide to always, every day, put in an hour or two or whatever in the morning, perhaps. They don’t really have to do what amateurs do, “I’m going to go out and jog today, maybe not. Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.”

These individuals have already made that commitment. Sometimes, they practice together with other individuals. The coach would keep track of whether they practice or not. Then they’re focused here in on this goal. They’re not asking themselves, “Do I want to keep doing this or not?” You’re just engaged here in this process of trying to reach the goal that you set for yourself. Then when you’re done and you’ve reached the goal, well then you can relax and enjoy it.

A lot of people find that that kind of concentration is really enjoyable because it relaxes you, you’re maximally focused during the training, but afterwards when you take the shower and stuff like that, you feel this relaxation and a very pleasurable, enjoyable feeling.

Brett McKay: Is purposeful practice, deliberate practice, is it domain-specific or can you increase your generalized ability to improve performance in other areas by taking part in deliberate practice in one specific area?

Anders Ericsson: That’s a really interesting question. I think it may depend a little bit on your level of skill. We know in some domains … I contributed to a study looking at world class rhythmic gymnast. What they found in that case was that if you started training in ballet, you were much more likely here to be world-class when you were an adult gymnast than if actually started training in gymnastics because, basically, the early training of gymnastics is much more free-play where you tumble around and do things, whereas ballet has a little bit more structure where you learn how to keep your posture, keep your balance and so on.

I think early on, there may be activities that could potentially benefit you like being able to have the right kind of posture might actually be valuable in several different types of activities. However, as you get more and more skilled, I found less evidence that basically you would have that general transfer.

Even when people do weight training in domain’s team sports. It seems that now the most effective weight training at the highly skilled levels is actually deigned to get at strengthening the muscles in particular situations where increased strength would be particularly useful in that particular sport, but that obviously would not then be likely here to generalize across other types of sports.

Brett McKay: You even talked about the chess players. They can get really good at chess, but sometimes they don’t get better in other activities that are similar to chess.

Anders Ericsson: That’s true. I think we need to distinguish. It may be that a chess player, when they start playing some other game, may be at an advantage compared to other players, but when it comes to actually transferring that high level of performance, I don’t know of any evidence suggesting here that having been a world-class chess player would actually make you more likely here to be successful in these other game. You somehow would be able to find some pathway here that would shortcut that training that’s required for mastery of this new game.

But, I have to be honest here, very few world-class chess players, as far as I know, have really taken on and tried to become world-class in bridge or whatever other game you would be thinking about.

Basically, that’s one of the intriguing things is that it seems to be so time, energy and resource constraint to achieve world-class level in a single domain that it’s extremely rare that individuals are able to reach that level in more than one domain.

Brett McKay: Throughout the book, the key part that you and Robert Pool carry throughout the entire book that’s key to deliberate practice, why it works, is this idea of mental representations. What are mental representations and what role do they play in your theory of expertise?

Anders Ericsson: Mental representations is that kind of organizing feature that … What we find is, as you get better in a domain, you acquire this ability of being able to close your eyes and actually mentally, see a picture or a mental image that you can manipulate and think about.

If you wanted to have a music piece sound like something, you can hear that music piece before you start playing, then you can also, basically now, use that image that you wanted to sound like as an input here to how you play it. Then you listen to it. Basically, that ability of actually mentally, listen to piece of music and actually think about how you could do it slightly differently to get it to sound even better, that kind of imagery, that’s what we basically refer to as mental representation.

I guess it’s key to improvement. If you don’t know what you need/want it to sound like or what you need/want to do, it’s going to be very hard for you to be able to do that, right? It seems that almost always, people are able to hear differences or when they look at other people doing something, they’re aware of what the difference is between how to do it the right way with the best success and how they currently are doing.

That is the starting point for you now to try to bridge that gap by engaging in training activities. It’s almost like your ability to see what needs to be changed is actually being developed in parallel with your increasing skill. I think that’s one of the things that I would emphasize here when it comes to training children and adolescents.

The parent and the coach really need to help the child and the adolescent to develop these representations because they eventually need to be responsible for the continued development. Once they get to a point here where they can now do what their parent or teacher is able to do, they need to continue that improvement if they’re going to be competitive at the national, international level.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it seems like that the coach or the teacher, they have the mental representations already and they’re trying to impart that to their student, but how can individuals apply deliberate practice when they might not have a coach or a teacher available?

Anders Ericsson: Well, I guess what you need, at least, is some kind of vision here, what it is that you would like to be able to do. Until you basically have a clear way of explicating what it is that you want to do and a method by which you will be able to tell if you can do that, then I think it’s going to be really hard to design purposeful practice. But I think pretty much any kind of activity that we engage in, we can at least find factors that can be converted into measurement.

For example, let’s talk about, for example, a doctor that listens to a patient. Then the question is, does a doctor, would they be able to, after the interview with the patient, to actually recall and describe what it is that the patient was actually saying and what they were concerned with and whether the patient really understood now how the recommended treatment would address the problem that they were experiencing.

Now that is an activity you can have the doctor, after seeing a video tape, try to really write down, what was it that the patient was saying. What they find is that some doctors, they’re just so in their own mind, focused in on what the medical problem is, that they don’t really have that ability of listening to the patient, of what it is that they are having problems with.

I think basically that listening skills is something that we can evaluate relatively easily. If we can evaluate it we can also set up, now, training activities where you would be watching a series of video tapes and we can see here how your ability to actually describe what the patient was saying during that interview.

Brett McKay: That’s great. This is you’re showing how individuals can take amorphous skills like good doctoring or business management where there’s not a specific skill that you can pin point. Say, if I work on this, I’ll become a better business manager. But, with this doctor example you’re showing that it is possible to apply deliberate practice even in more amorphous soft skills.

Anders Ericsson: Right. I think another thing that doctors get training on is, “How do you basically talk to a patient that you’re going to have to tell that they have a very low probability of surviving for the next 6 months?” They actually have a design now.

There’re actually individuals that are trained to be patient so you would have a doctor here now given an assignment here to convey to this actor patient. Then, basically that actor patient will try to behave in different ways that would now help the doctor realize what some of the issues, some problems. Then you would have a coach, who would actually be reviewing the video tape or the actual interaction, that would then be able to help the doctor here pointing out, “Here’s something you need to change. You need to really help this individual. Do the best of a very difficult situation.”

What they find is that these difficult situation, if you get training in actually helping people through them you can do a much better job so the patient actually now is able to more constructively deal with what would be in any case a very challenging situation.

Brett McKay: Dr. Ericsson you’re idea of deliberate practice has been written about extensively. I’ve read the Talent Code or Talent s Over Rated. They’ve written about it. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about your work famously. He came with this whole 10,000 hour rule. It’s often become synonymous with deliberate practice. But, you devote an entire section, you and Robert Pool devote an entire section detailing the misconceptions that people have about this rule. What are the misconceptions about the 10,000 hour rule?

Anders Ericsson: I think the most important misconception is this idea that if you just keep doing something for 10,000 hours you magically become an expert. I guess, Malcolm Gladwell was talking in his book here about the Beatles playing very, very extended periods in Hamburg and he was arguing that maybe this thousands of hours of playing could possibly explain why the Beatles was developing into the music band that composed a lot of successful songs.

I guess, we’re arguing here that you really need to link it. I think in my own mind and I think a lot biographers of the Beatles would argue that their compositions, it wasn’t like they were instrumentalist that played other people’s music. Their fame was in playing their own composed music that really made a major impact. What we need to explain here is how these compositional skills were developed. That’s actually a different task.

In our work, and Gladwell was referring to it when he came up with this 10,000 hour rule, we were talking about that activity that a music student is actually working by themselves in their training room, working on tasks that their music teacher has assigned them. If we just count those hours where they’re working by themselves and really trying to gradually improve their skill, that’s the kind of time that we were talking about.

I think that idea here that, the body would know when you actually have done 10,000 hours of something, doesn’t make sense. It differs from domain to domain. In fact when I tried to estimate the amount of time that musicians, pianists that practice alone before they won an international piano competition, probably would be more closer to 20 to 25 thousand hours of training.

There’s several things here that I think are different but I do think that Malcolm Gladwell did a good thing here by helping people believe that the way even the most talented become great is actually spending this very long period of time where they’re actually working and trying to develop their skills. Anybody who’s looking for, a secret where they can become a world expert here after 5 hours of training, that’s totally ridiculous.

I think we need to help people realize what the path is going to have to look like for them to be successful. Then they can make a choice, are they seeing here that they would like to make that commitment but essentially saying that they wouldn’t be able to or that they wouldn’t be able to do it with the 5 hours of training, that’s a different kind of idea.

All we can do, I think, in science is to help people see. Give them the best possible information about the choices that they have about the careers that they might want to pursue.

Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Ericsson this’s been a fantastic conversation. Where can people learn more about the book Peak?

Anders Ericsson: Well, I think maybe the best source is ‘Peak the book’ in one word dot com. Robert Pool and his wife have set up a website where you can also get in contact with us and also a lot of other connections of related issues.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Dr. Anders Ericsson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Anders Ericsson: I really enjoyed talking to you. It was wonderful. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest Anders Ericsson is the coauthor of the book Peak: The New Science of Expertise. You can find that on and bookstores everywhere. You can also go to for more information about the book.

Also, check out the show notes at for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure and check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed this show and have got something out it, I’d really appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes. It really helps us out a lot. As always I appreciate your continued support and until next time this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

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